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Running with Ruth: Netflix and the pain cave

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I was ecstatic

I was ecstatic, after spending the better part of the night in the ‘pain cave,’ to have finished my 12-hour running challenge with a grand total of 42 miles.

As you know if you’ve followed my tales of running adventures hither and yon over the years, you know I’m a hardcore runner. I’ve sprinted up Mt. Evans and Pikes Peak. I’ve raced through the desert at the White Sands. I’ve done multiple racing events with the word “death” in the title.

But that was before COVID-19.

The global pandemic has ushered in an era of ‘soft’ this spring and summer — a lifestyle I’ve totally embraced. I’ve isolated at home, eaten pizza by the truckload, binged on must-see-TV, rarely bothered to ditch my pajamas — and when I did, it was just to ‘dress up’ in yoga gear.

And this trend has held true for my running game. I have had to quench my thirst for racing glory via ‘virtual’ running challenges. However, I must admit, even in these ‘races,’ I am finding my mettle ‘medal’ to be more like gold — shiny but soft — than the steel of my former glory days.

Take my most recent ultra-marathon, for example.

By definition, an ‘ultra’ is any race longer than a marathon. Sounds pretty hardcore, right?

I recently signed up to participate in a 12-hour ultra-marathon challenge. Per the rules of the game, I had a 48-hour window in which to run for 12 consecutive hours, logging as many miles within that time as I could. Most of the participants chose to race on difficult self-designed courses, like Cheyenne Mountain or the Appalachian Trail — rugged regions, rife with skeeters, mountain lions and rattlesnakes. These hardy souls posted pictures of themselves on social media, slogging through Florida swamps or over Rocky Mountain passes, bloodied and bruised from their treks.

Not me.

For, you see, I am ‘soft.’ So I designed the easiest course I could.

I decided that a rare flower such as myself shouldn’t run in the heat of the day. To avoid wilting in the sun, I would start my run at 7 p.m., jogging outside with one of my best friends as my wingman for a few hours. When it got dark, to avoid being abducted by Sasquatch, I would head home and run through the night on my treadmill, binge watching Netflix and snacking on quesadillas, Starbucks, and sweet tea. At the dawn’s first light, I would head back outdoors to finish my challenge with a second running bestie.

And my plan to avoid discomfort at all costs worked — almost.

The first few hours of my running adventure went off without a hitch. Joined by longtime buddy Lisa, I ran a picturesque loop east of town. The night was beautiful — cloudy and cool, with thunderstorms dancing in the distance far to the north, lightning flickering in the twilight like a magical laser show on the horizon. It didn’t even feel like I was running. It just felt like “girls night,” the two of us happily chit-chatting as we jogged along.

As we finished our jaunt, I hopped into my car and dashed home to quickly transition to my treadmill. Since the 12-hour clock was still ticking, I decided to utilize this temporary ‘down time’ to its fullest by chomping a quick snack. Hot and sweaty from the miles I’d already covered, I greedily popped open a can of sweet tea and chugged its sugary goodness, finishing the refreshing beverage in about three gulps.

That was my fatal mistake.

For you see, I’m a freak of nature. I can’t burp.

When I accidentally swallow air, it forms a painful bubble in the dead center of my chest that can knock me flat on my back, writhing in pain for hours. The air sack feels like a razor blade along the length of my breastbone, pressing deeper with every breath I take. I look like a fish, gasping as I flop on a river bank, dying for air, yet also dying every time I try to inhale.

When I chugged the sweet tea, I chugged about a gallon of air with  it. And I immediately knew my mistake.

Thus, when I got home, started season two of “Dead to Me” on Netflix, and stepped on to my treadmill, I entered the zone that every runner dreads and fears — the pain cave.

I stumbled my way through the pain cave for five hours. Every step was torture. I couldn’t catch a deep breath due to the pressure of the air bubble in my chest. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t swallow water. I felt nauseous and weak. So I made a deal with myself. If I could tough it out for a total of 50K, the shortest distance for a ‘real’ ultramarathon, I could ring the bell and tap out.  

The miles, just like the hours, felt never ending. The pain cave is long, and it is deep. I stumbled through it, ticking off the steps and calculating how many more hours I would have to suffer until I could wave the white flag.

After what felt like centuries, I hit the 50K mark. And just like that — the air bubble in my chest eased. Then disappeared. I realized season two of my Netflix binge was just getting good — why not run for one more episode? So I did. And then I ran through another and another. As the season ended, I found myself closing in on 35 miles. Light was starting to trickle in through my living room windows. Day was dawning. I had survived the pain cave.

With renewed spirits, I was picked up by my longtime running buddy Juanita, and we headed to Trinidad Lake to finish the 12-hour challenge. The rosy glow in the east ushered in a truly beautiful day. The Spanish Peaks and Sangres were awash in pinks and oranges. The air felt fresh and crisp. Despite my fatigue, I felt excited as each additional mile ticked by. At 6:56 a.m., I stopped my running clock, having covered a total of 42.6 miles in my running adventure.

I may not have climbed above the tree line. I may not have wrestled a grizzly bear at a mountain stream just for a drink of water like my ultra-marathoning peers. But I learned that we may have a hard time, even when we pick the ‘easy’ route. Pain caves can pop up anywhere.

Even in a can of sweet tea.

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